A Journey through the Deep (Fried) South

     Crawfish I already knew about.  Back in Indiana, they were the ugly little pinching-monsters the neighborhood bullies would pull from muddy creeks to fling at me.  I didn't want to touch them; I certainly didn't want to eat them.  But in New Orleans, when that first pound was served up steaming, whole and hot from a spicy broth, everything changed.  Suddenly--as I twisted off the first tail and pressed out the meat--I was a hungry Gulliver in a land of lilliputian lobsters.  I devoured a plateful in minutes, sucking the bodies (as the locals do) for a last taste of broth, and ending up with a satisfying chaos of empty shells.

     Not every meal down there was that therapeutic, but they were, all in all, a revelation.  Coming from New York, Kate and I were following our suspicion that there was more to the Deep South and its cuisine than the images we held, from the movies and TV, of people with funny accents graciously serving up things like possum jowls.

     After the crawfish adventure, we headed up Decatur St. in the French Quarter to Cafe Du Monde to charge up on the only thing they serve, beignets (a square, holeless doughnut) and serious coffee.  The place is big and open, and gusts from the Mississippi lift powdered-sugar clouds from the beignets, obscuring the faces of unprepared patrons.  One round was enough to get us firing again in all cylinders--but others around us hadn't been so judicious.  Fairly palpitating with caffeine and sugar, they sit glassy-eyed, like naive China travellers who have realized too late the consequences of going native in an opium den.

     The waiters (mostly Vietnamese, with a few old-timers mixed in) are so efficient, and the turnover is so rapid, one gets the impression that Cafe Du Monde, like the hidden hamster running in a wheel, is what's really moving New Orleans.'

     The next day we met Betty Carter, an old friend of my grandmother, for lunch.  (Mrs. Carter is the mother of Hodding Carter III, formerly of Jimmy Carter's administration; her mother led the fight to save the French Quarter.)  Now in her eighties, she is a lively and energetic Woman of the South. Turning her Volvo sturdily down St. Charles Avenue she said, "We could go to a nice place: tiled walls, lots of charming Tulane students...or I can take you to a real dump."  We paused politely, then voted for the dump.

     Domilese's, Betty told us, as she pushed confidently to the crowded counter, makes the best po'boys in town. (Po'boys--"poor boys"--are the big sandwiches called heros, hoagies, grinders or submarines elsewhere.  They are sold everywhere in Louisiana.)  The flavor of the fried oysters came through the batter and bread of our po'boys fresh and sweet.  And we washed them down in the only acceptable fashion--with bottles of Barq's, the indigenous root beer.

     That afternoon we left the city, steered our rented Pontiac south towards the bayou and pulled over in a town called Houma when we saw what looked like a house on fire.  In fact, on the porch of a bar called John's White House, a portly old man was just getting the barbecue going properly.  The roof of the porch was scorched and the flames were leaping; he laughed at our concern.  "Come on in and have a drink," he said. "The food's free!"

     Inside were three beer drinkers, a Country guitarist, and a bleached-blonde bartender lamenting being stood up by a man who was going to take her to Bourbon Street for the first time.  We loaded our plates, had a beer, and sang along.  The chicken was smoky and dark, slow-cooked to a melting point of 98.6°; the sausage burst with enough grease to run Amtrak.  But there was something the two dishes had in common--a lurking, idiosyncratic flavor.  I imagined some secret ingredient...and I was about to ask when it came to me:  lighter fluid.

     The next morning, outside our motel, we passed a woman having a romantic dispute with two Elvis impersonators with sideburns, tight pants and platform shoes.  Their car had "Visit Graceland" and "I [heart] Elvis" bumper-stickers, and IM ELVIS vanity plates.  Apparently the woman had chosen one over the other, and the unloved Elvis was near tears and threatening to take off with the Elvismobile.  We walked by.

     Near Bayou Vista, we signed on to Cajun Jack's Swamp Tour.  We didn't see any 'gators like in their brochure, but we did see herons, beavers, and a thing he called a "neutrarat," a three-foot rat that swims.  The bayou is eerie and silent and alive--the abundant source of all this seafood.  Jack dropped a net into the green slime we were sliding through and pulled it out squirming with crawfish.

     We had a great breakfast the next day at the Dugas Cafe in Sunset, Louisiana.  It was a dusty little Ma-and-Pa place, with the TV on and a dusty little Ma and Pa at the counter speaking Cajun French. They were polite and asked us what everyone down there did, "Where y'all from?" and "Why'd y'all come here?"  We had eggs, fluffy homemade biscuits and the obligatory grits.  To me, grits are just another medium for butter; Kate has trouble with a food whose texture so closely matches its name.

     We crossed into Mississippi at Natchez, a city famous for its antebellum homes.  These stately monuments to the years of slavery are tourist attractions now, popular with senior citizen groups and Southern Belle wannabees.  This supposedly nostalgic picture of the Old South would be complete if not for the stench of a pulp mill downstream which permeates lovely Natchez like soup through croutons when the wind is blowing wrong.

     Using a trusted inside source (the Yellow Pages), we found Cock of the Walk, a restaurant in the part of Natchez called Under-the-Hill (i.e., under-the-smell).  It was the best dinner of the trip:  We were greeted with tin cups of iced tea and a skillet of warm cornbread; we had spicy local catfish and a healthy pot of mustard greens; and after a dessert of bread pudding with rum sauce, our waiter, who doubled on ragtime piano, serenaded us all the way out the door.

     The next day, across from the Natchez Mall, we found a painted cinderblock box called The Donut King.  I snapped photos while Kate went up to the window and ordered two glazed and two chocolate; the girl there said, "Where y'all from?  Nobody from here would take pictures of The Donut King."  We're used to doughnuts that feel like wet socks when they get inside you, but these were warm and light and flaky and fresh.  Maybe the key to The Donut King's success is in the cryptic message we saw on an old sign leaning against their building:  "As you wander on through life, brother, whatever be your goal/Keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole."

     On the backroads north of Natchez, through towns like Church Hill and Vicksburg, we passed hanging vines and wooden shacks--the Deep South of our imagination.  Outside Jackson we picked up a Blues station with dedications like, "To Lucy May Jean Rag-Doll Simpson from her ever-lovin' Sammy the Bone-Dog Taylor..."--but it soon faded back into the clichés of Country & Western.  We got a little lost looking for Hot Coffee, Mississippi--where we came away with an "I Visited Downtown Hot Coffee" t-shirt--and it was past 9:00 when we pulled into Hattiesburg.

     Most of the restaurants were closed, so we ended up at a typical fern-and-brass number called Chesterfield's, near the U. of Southern Miss. campus and frequented by its students and their credit card-carrying parents.

     The past week had been filled with the freshest, most plentiful oysters, shrimp, catfish and boiled crawfish we'd ever tasted.  But what did Chesterfield's have on the menu seafoodwise? Alaskan King Crab.  Plus faux-Continental dishes and lots of funny drinks (so embarrassing they need a little umbrella to hide them).  Such places--with their formulas for profit, for "atmosphere" and standard-brand dishes--are as generic and inevitable as McDonald's, if more upscale.  We got by on pasta and robotlike service from a Famous Waiters School graduate named named Tim (as in, "Hi!  My name is Tim!").

     On the way back to New Orleans we pulled onto the gravel beside a seafood shack on a stretch of industrial truck route east of the city.  An old woman inside got up from a black & white TV game show to ladle us a fresh batch of bayou crawdads, $1.19 for the pound.  The crawfish was irresistible and so spicy-hot it made our eyes water.  But it also opened our eyes:  With fresh food, easy service, and a comfortable picnic table near Route 47 on a sunny Louisiana day, does eating out get any better than this?

     Like that crawfish stand, all our favorite places in the Deep South were simple and unpretentious.  Instead of empty trappings, they focused on the one thing out of which the traditional hospitality of the South naturally flows: serving good food.  Or to put it another way: they've kept their eye upon the donut and not upon the hole.